The Story of Doomed War Artist Eric Ravilious Told in a New Movie | painting – 71Bait

TThe letter was dated August 30, 1942 and was sent from Iceland. Eric Ravilious, one of the official War Artists, wrote to his wife Tirzah (“Tush”) of “an incredible lunch of caviar, pie and cheese”. He then described the island’s lunar-like craters before finishing: “Would you like a pair of sealskin gloves with fur on the back? Draw around your hand on stationery so I can get the size. Goodbye my darling. I hope you feel well again.”

The letter is read out by his only surviving child, Anne Ullmann Eric Ravilious: Went to War, which – a rarity for an art film – hits theaters on July 1. His “Goodbye Darling” was tragically fitting when three days later Ravilious’ plane crashed over the sea. The letter reached his wife after his death.

A toddler when her father died and now 81, this is Ullmann’s first broadcast or filmed interview. She reveals moving letters between her parents and how she discovered an unknown treasure of her father’s works, including many submarines, in the bedroom of his best friend, the artist Edward Bawden, in the 1980s.

This find sparked a resurgence of interest in Ravilious, which had been virtually forgotten for half a century after the war. As Alan Bennett notes in the film, “Now he’s so loved. Nevertheless, it is a shared secret.”

White horse carved into the hillside in Wiltshire
Ravilious’ artwork The Westbury Horse has an evocative English twist. Photo: Towner Eastbourne/

It saw a poster of Ravilious train landscape at school, which turned Bennett into a devotee. Decades later he recalls the impressive Englishwoman of other works of the 1930s such as tea at furlongs and The Westbury horse.

Grayson Perry, whose childhood was spent in the same part of Essex where the Ravilious family eventually settled and where their neighbor Bawden was, said: “He takes simple subjects and turns them into masterpieces.”

The film’s award-winning director, Margy Kinmonth, who has previously made television documentaries about the paintings of LS Lowry and Prince Charles, said: “Yes, Ravilious’s name may be disputed by some, but when they see his work it is so recognisable. “

Originally known for his pastoral attitudes, Ravilious became one of the first artists of World War II in a program created by Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery. And it’s Ravilious’ war letters that have such resonance, largely because of his death – he was the first martial artist to die. Some of Tushs also survive. All were left to their three children.

Ravilious wrote from near Norway in April 1940 about “bitter fighting” and “how the sun didn’t shine much day and night”. Tush replied, “How terrifying it must be to witness a real war.” She told him that HMS Glorious was sunk in June 1940 and 1,500 British sailors drowned. “I will be so relieved to have you back,” she wrote, adding that her son John “was almost hit by a bomb in a field.”

In the summer of 1940, Ravilious was on a submarine, which he liked to draw and paint despite the cramped conditions. From the south coast, amid the German bombardment, he sent several letters to Tush: “It’s a mess with all the shelling, and yet I feel an excitement that it’s really possible to draw wartime activities.”

Tush gave birth to Anne in April 1941, but later that year wrote about a lump on her left breast. Ullmann said: “My father asked to be transferred to Essex from Yorkshire, where he was then living. My mother needed a mastectomy and then an abortion as it wasn’t safe to have another child.” She had gotten pregnant when Ravilious was on leave to see his newborn.

Despite her problems, Ravilious was posted to Iceland in mid-1942. The film tells how Tush felt she couldn’t stop him, even though she knew her husband might never return. “I lifted Anne to wave goodbye one last time,” she wrote in her diary. It was a “final goodbye” because Ravilious died on September 2. Ullmann recalls in the film how he later “told about the lady who lived down the street, that she came to my mother with a package of his effects. Including his red-spotted handkerchiefs. My mother cried her eyes out.”

Tush then had to write to the War Department 49 times over a two-year period seeking a widow’s pension before it was accepted that her husband was not only missing but formally dead. It was all the more horrific because she had been left with three children and declining health. She died of cancer in 1951 in her forties.

“Somehow we got on with our own lives,” said Ullmann. But as she and her brothers grew up and after the death of their stepfather (Tush had remarried in 1946), they wanted to find out more about their father. Ullmann wrote to Bawden, who still lived in the same house in Essex, in the 1980s. “He sent back a very nice letter.” Amazingly, Bawden told her that he kept a large stash of Ravilious’s work under his bed.

After the discovery, the children began to revive their father’s career. Exhibitions have been held, culminating in a major show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2015, while prices for his work have soared.

“Being a martial artist wasn’t a soft option,” Bennett said. “Painting was Ravilious’s active ministry – and he gave his life for it. Not exactly a martyr’s death, but it preserves and elevates it.”

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